Monday, June 26, 2006

Recollections of horror

The French embassy scenes from the film The Killing Fields live long in the memory for those who've watched the movie, and for those who were part of the real-life drama itself. One such individual was Dr Murray Carmichael (left), whose story is told in an on-line Sunday Herald article at http://www.sundayherald.com/48965. Carmichael was the anaesthetist in a Scottish medical team brought out by the Red Cross and who commandeered the Hotel Le Phnom as a neutral zone. However, when Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge on 17 April 1975, he and the other 800 westerners in the city sought refuge in the French embassy, alongwith another 700 nationalities, mostly Cambodians. After a fortnight, the Khmer Rouge ferried the western contingent to the Thai border and Year Zero had begun.

Reading Murray Carmichael's recollections of the dying embers of Phnom Penh before the Khmer Rouge stopped the clock, reminded me of three other accounts of that era that have been published. One of my favourite memoirs of that period is by Sunday Times journalist Jon Swain (right), who devotes fifty pages of his River Of Time book to those chaotic few weeks. Francois Bizot, an expert on Buddhism at the Sorbonne in Paris, was a key figure in the French embassy and in negotiations with the Khmer Rouge and 120 pages in his book, The Gate, recall his involvement as the story unfolds. Thirdly, Sydney Schanberg remembers the same period in his account, The Death and Life of Dith Pran. In it, he recalls the heart-stopping moment when he tells Pran of their failed attempt to forge him a British passport. The next day Pran walks out of the embassy gates to a certain death.

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